Today, we’re eagerly anticipating the launch of the new Ford Mustang in late summer, but at the start of the Swinging ’60s it was the new, third-generation Ford Thunderbird that was vying for attention among British aficionados of American muscle.
Available from Lincoln Cars on London’s Great West Road as a semi-official import, the 1961 Thunderbird was a completely new design, although it remained a two-door, close-coupled four-seater. Power came from a 300bhp 6.4-litre V8, linked to a Cruise-O-Matic automatic transmission, while wishbone-type front suspension was balanced by a live rear axle and semi-elliptic springs at the rear. Our road testers needed no second invitation…
Nor did they need to make any excuses. Steering agility was rated as “extraordinary”, the damping coped “very well” with British roads and the cornering characteristics were “stable” – although the latter came with a slightly disappointed note that “there appears to be neither oversteer nor understeer”.
Acceleration, meanwhile, was “exceptional”, with 0-60mph taking 9.3sec and 0-100mph 26.3sec, and even the auto ’box was noted to “change so smoothly that sometimes it was impossible to detect the shifts”. Even a test best fuel economy of 15mpg was forgiven (it averaged just over 13mpg after spirited performance tests), due to the car’s two-tonne weight and the engine’s mighty cubic capacity.
Even more impressive – although perhaps less likely to excite a road tester – was the car’s 12.6-metre turning circle. Given its 5.2m length, that was a seriously impressive figure, equivalent to that achieved by the five-metre-long Range Rover today.
Perhaps the only immediate downside was the British purchase tax, which raised the price from £2679 14s 2d to £3797 7s 9d, albeit with a heater, radio and electrically operated front seats, windows and windscreen washers thrown in. Fifty-four years ago, that was a great deal of money – only slightly less than an Aston Martin DB4 (£3968) and more than twice the price of a Jaguar Mk2 3.8 (£1179). To provide a measure of commonsense, a Ford Anglia cost £589.
Still, the road testers concluded that the Thunderbird was worth every penny. “More important than the high performance is the completely effortless manner in which it is achieved,” they said. “Mechanical refinement of engine, transmission and steering would be hard to improve upon, the power-assisted steering setting an example to other manufacturers.”